A Honduran migrant told police she was offered a ride earlier this year to a local bus station in El Paso, Texas, by a woman who instead snatched her infant son and held him for ransom for five arduous months, according to a federal criminal complaint unsealed Monday.
Jenna Leigh Roark, 45, is facing charges of hostage taking, and aiding and abetting for allegedly abducting the unidentified boy in May and keeping him captive until cops inadvertently stumbled upon him in mid-September.
Roark told a different story to police, insisting her husband had landed himself in trouble with the Mexican mafia and that her young hostage came to her via a shadowy middleman she knew only as “Richard.”
Tales of kidnappings these days are all-too common among migrants seeking safety in the U.S., Austin-based immigration lawyer Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch told The Daily Beast, pointing to the Trump-era “metering” policy that shut down available options for asylum-seekers to enter the country as a turning point. President Joe Biden vowed to remove the many wrenches Trump threw into the asylum system’s works, but hasn’t moved fast enough, some human rights groups say. Meanwhile, Republican governors Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas have executed cruel stunts using asylum-seekers as props, luring them onto planes and buses and dumping them in so-called liberal enclaves such as Martha’s Vineyard or the sidewalk in front of Vice-President Kamala Harris’ official Washington, D.C. residence.
Roark, who does not have a lawyer listed in court records, was unable to be reached for comment. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in El Paso, which is prosecuting the case, did not respond to a request for comment.
The peculiar case first came to the attention of authorities on Sept. 16, when Roark was pulled over by the Texas Highway Patrol.
Roark’s 15-year-old daughter, who is not identified by name in court documents, was sitting in the passenger seat, holding an 18-month-old infant. Roark said the baby’s name was Aiden Smith and he had been born on May 19, 2021. She said her other daughter was the biological mother and the boy’s birth certificate was at home.
The troopers summoned Roark’s other daughter, who is also unnamed in court papers, to the scene. When she arrived from Albuquerque, she said the baby’s name was Aiden Javael Smith, and that he had been born on May 19—2020. The baby wasn’t actually hers, she explained, but her fiancée was the boy’s biological mom. He was in “poor health,” and rushed by ambulance to the hospital, according to a DPS news bulletin issued last week.
“Due to conflicting stories and not being able to identify the child, Child Protective Services was called to take possession of the child [who] has been in their custody since that date,” the complaint states.
There were three passengers in the backseat of Roark’s car, all of whom were undocumented, according to the complaint. Roark, who had allegedly picked up the trio at a nearby Motel 6, was arrested on state human smuggling charges.
On Sept. 26, investigators with the St. Petersburg, Florida Police Department contacted the FBI. They told agents that a Honduran national who was now living in the area had been “separated from her infant son… and was being extorted for money in exchange for [his] safe return.”
It happened in May, the unidentified woman told officers. She said she had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border with her baby, and eventually approached two strangers, a man and a woman, at an El Paso apartment complex for directions to the Greyhound station, the complaint continues.
“The unknown male and female offered her a ride,” it says, adding that the woman—Roark—called herself “Jane.”
While en route, however, Jane said they were going to keep the woman’s child, the woman told police. Jane took her phone number and said she’d be in touch.
“Jane would periodically send Victim pictures and videos of [her] Son, and Victim and [her] Son would speak on the phone two to three times a week,” the complaint states, without providing further detail.
Things almost certainly weren’t that simple, according to Lincoln-Goldfinch, who is not involved with the Roark case but told The Daily Beast that in her experience with other cases, “people are threatened with death or violence, and they witness other people get murdered or raped, and they’re told, ‘Do this thing, or else.’”
“I can tell you of many, many incidents and stories I’ve heard from my clients,” she said. “If someone hires a smuggler to help them, that smuggler is either someone who will take a fee and help them get across the border, or that smuggler is a trafficker with a cartel, and they’ll take that money and then do all sorts of awful things, demand a ransom, and the migrant doesn’t know which type of smuggler they’re getting.”
“Jane” at first demanded $8,000 for the return of her child, later dropping the price to $5,800, the complaint says.
Police in St. Petersburg gave “Jane’s” cell phone number to the FBI, who traced the device to downtown El Paso and linked it in a database to a “Jenna L. Roark.”
The FBI contacted the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) for more information on Roark, and learned that she had been arrested the previous week and that “a child was taken into CPS custody,” the complaint states.
FBI agents showed pictures of the child to his mother, who confirmed he was indeed hers.
Under questioning by DPS, Roark “stated that her husband was in trouble with the mafia in Juarez known as La Empresa,” according to the complaint. She claimed the baby boy who she initially described as her daughter's kids “was sent to her by a man in Mexico… only known [to her] as Richard.”
In Roark’s version of events, “Richard” had originally sent the Honduran woman and her two other children across the border. The baby “was eventually brought to the United States by an unknown female and Roark was supposed to care for the child until payment by Victim was made,” the complaint states.
And while the child’s alleged ransom was set at $5,800, Roark said she told the boy’s mom that she in fact owed a total of $10,000.
“Roark was instructed that she could not take anyone’s word but Richard’s that payment for the child was made,” the complaint concludes. “Once payment was made, the Son could be released.”
“Once they have someone’s kid, the parent will do whatever it takes,” Lincoln-Goldfinch said on Monday.
In addition to her private practice, Lincoln-Goldfinch is the president of VECINA, a nonprofit that mentors, trains, and equips pro bono attorneys “with the necessary knowledge and skills to provide zealous advocacy.”
The backlog of migrants stuck on the other side of the Mexican border has created an opportunity for cartels, what Lincoln-Goldfinch calls “a lucrative kidnapping system.” In a study VECINA conducted over the summer, Lincoln-Goldfinch said a mind-boggling 44 percent of migrants the organization worked with said they had been abducted, or subjected to an abduction attempt, by a cartel.
The latest case is not only heartbreaking but extremely frustrating, she said.
“One of the things that is so frustrating for those of us who know these stories, is that the rhetoric around immigrants as kidnappers, or drug traffickers, or sex traffickers, is completely flipped,” she told The Daily Beast. “The truth is, these immigrants are fleeing something, they’re coming here for safety. They are the victims of trafficking, often, and the cartels have seized upon the opportunity to do what they’re doing because of the U.S.’ failure to process asylum-seekers in an orderly way.”
If convicted, Roark faces a maximum of life in prison.